You know when it comes to mainstream artists, they haven’t fared too well with my best of year-end awards. Other than Chris Stapleton last year no other mainstream artist has won. Of course not even Stapleton feels like he’s “mainstream” because when you think of mainstream you think of someone who’s been on Music Row and country radio for years. Usually though these type of artists don’t deliver best of worthy music because they’re content just putting out mediocre material that easily has mass appeal. But then one day you finally get someone on the “inside” who isn’t just content with where they’re at and strive to deliver something more. It’s when that artist starts performing to their highest potential and start putting out the best music of their career. It’s the kind of artist all genres need in the mainstream. And in country music this year there was one artist who exemplified this well. So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year is Eric Church.
If you told me a few years ago that I would name Eric Church to one of my best of year-end awards, I would have called you crazy. I was one of the most critical voices of Church, from his album The Outsiders to his single choices to the interviews he gave. Even while delivering all of this criticism of him and his music, I knew deep down he could do better and if he chose to do better he could be one of the best. That’s not to say he hasn’t always tried his best. He always has, but he had yet to find his voice/niche I thought. You would get glimpses of it in songs like “Springsteen” and “Cold One,” but never for an entire album. Well finally in November 2015 we got the album I had been waiting for from Church: Mr. Misunderstood.
It’s the shortest and least hyped album of his career. The whole release was a complete surprise. The bigger surprise though was what lied in the album. Gone was the arrogance, bluster and bombast that had plagued him on his last album. Instead we got humility, grace and honesty from the very first song, “Mr. Misunderstood.” In the song Church reaches out to the misunderstood kid, who sits in the back of the class and gets mocked for his music tastes. That’s because Church says he was that kid at one point. He was shy and backward, listening to the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy while his friends got “their rocks off on Top 40 radio.” It’s essentially Church admitting who he really is and what he’s really about, while essentially writing a love letter to music. He says it’s okay to be different and follow the beat of your own drum, damn what others think and that’s something he’s always been about, even if it got muddled along the way.
It lays the groundwork for the rest of the album where he just delivers great song after great song exploring a variety of topics and eventually at the end coming to grips of how much he’s grown up to where he is now with a wife and kids. This self-admitted growth showed to me that we’re getting a different Eric Church now. One who is more focused on the art of the music and less about the hype and awards gained from it. Someone who after years of experience realizes that years from now people will remember you based on what you gave. I said at the end of last year that Church was poised to make a great impact in 2016 if he chose to do so. I said he could bring the quality that the mainstream so desperately needs, especially on the airwaves. He could be the leader and voice this genre has needed for year. And that’s exactly what he did this year.
He’s released two of the best songs off Mr. Misunderstood as singles, “Record Year” and “Kill A Word.” The former is one of the best heartbreak songs I’ve heard in the past couple years, combining sobering heartbreak and the resurgent popularity of vinyl. In it the man heals his broken heart going through his vinyl collection, listening to hours and hours of music to put himself back together. He’s had a “record year” and he’s now come out better, finding great music and feeling better about life. Church also pays tribute to some excellent music in the song such as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The latter song brings a message the world so desperately needed this year. It’s a message of fighting back against bullying, hoping to erase the word hate. Not to mention Church gives a platform for the talented Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens to get more notice and recognition. He even sent a special edit to radio with Giddens getting more lines to sing to ensure it says featuring Giddens on the charts.
Church also gave many candid interviews this year, being a voice that the genre has needed. For example in an interview with Rolling Stone, Church was asked about the best part of success and this was his response:
The freedom to do what I want musically. The mistake a lot of people make is the more success they have, the safer they play it. That’s wrong: I think the more success you have, the more dangerous you should play it.
Church most resonating quote though comes from his interview with The Vulture. When asked about being more matured compared to his peers and the youth movement on country radio:
You have to be resolved to the fact that you’re not always gonna be hot. If you’re making music that is truly representative of growth and maturity and of your heart, you’re not gonna continue to maintain the heat throughout that process. That’s okay to me. I’ve always looked at the long game. It wasn’t just something that we made a decision in the moment because we needed to sell another 100,000 albums or a ticket for a tour. When you start making those decisions, you end up regretting ’em. I see the guys now; there’s a lot of them that are my age but try to act like they’re 25.
The problem there is you’re holding on so tight. My question would be, “To what?” To me, it’s just not commitment to the art. When you’re putting an album out there for everyone to compare against all the others, I can’t imagine ever having to make a decision and go, “Gosh, I need to do this in order to have success right now, but I know I’m gonna regret this in a year or two.”
It’s quotes like these that show all up and coming artists out there that you should follow your heart and make the music you want. Despite all of his success, Church knows this is the most important thing for him and his career. It’s an example to his peers that they don’t need to be a cog in the machine to get where they want in life. You can have it all doing it your way. Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton demonstrated this the last few years and now Eric Church has done it this year. Because at the end of the day it’s about what resonates with the fans, who Church says should always come first. To me that’s a lesson all artists should learn and that is also why Eric Church is Country Perspective’s 2016 Male Artist of the Year.